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Resisting the tyranny of convenience

Feb. 24, 2018

Columbia law professor Tim Wu suggests in a column in The New York Times that convenience has become a kind of tyranny. “I prefer to brew my own coffee, but Starbucks instant is so convenient that I hardly ever do what I ‘prefer,’” he writes by way of example.

“Convenience is the most underestimated and least understood force in the world today,” Wu suggests. Once you have used a washing machine or streamed video, options such as washing clothes by hand or waiting for a prescribed time to watch a show seems unthinkable. “To resist convenience…has come to require a special kind of dedication that is often taken for eccentricity, if not fanaticism,” he writes.

“Particularly in tech-related industries, the battle for convenience is the battle for industry dominance,” he notes, adding that convenience and monopoly seem to be natural bedfellows, alluding to the network effect.

Wu divides convenience into two waves—the first including the aforementioned washing machine as well as instant cake mix and the microwave oven. This wave reduced the physical labor required for common tasks. This wave sputtered out by the late 1960s with the counterculture and an emerging need for people to avoid conformity and express themselves. “Playing the guitar was not convenient,” he writes.

The second wave, he contends, began with an effort to “conveniencize individuality.” With a Sony Walkman, you could walk down the street enclosed in an acoustic environment of your own choosing. This wave continues today—with Facebook and one-click shopping, for example. “The ideal is personal preference with no effort,” he writes.

However, he adds, “Convenience is all destination and no journey.” Climbing a mountain is different from taking a tram to the top, he explains, adding that we risk becoming people who care only about outcomes. In addition, the conveniencing of individuality can actually strip us of our individuality. The format and conventions of Facebook, he says, make us all seem about the same with only superficial differences.

Further, convenience has its own inherent problems. Wu quotes Betty Friedan writing in The Feminine Mystique in 1963, “Even with all the new labor-saving appliances, the modern housewife probably spends more time on housework than her grandmother.”

“When things become easier, we can seek to fill our time with more ‘easy’ tasks,” explains Wu. “At some point, life’s defining struggle becomes the tyranny of tiny chores and petty decisions.”

Wu advises, “We need to consciously embrace the inconvenient.” He acknowledges that we already do this with our hobbies and avocations. But I suppose it’s worth keeping in mind his conclusion: “We must never forget the joy of doing something slow and something difficult, the satisfaction of not doing what is easiest.”

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